Done. He was done. No more lies; no more acts of blind savagery; no longer any need to pretend that he was Keldec’s loyal retainer.
His precarious double life as Enforcer and rebel spy was over. He had turned his back on it, and he was going home. Crossing country under moonlight, he pondered what his sudden decision would mean. He would be at Shadowfell, the rebel headquarters, over the winter. He would see Neryn again: a precious gift, though there would be little time alone together in that place of cramped communal living. His arrival there would bring a double blow for the rebels, for he carried not only the news of their leader’s death, but also an alarming rumour, passed on to him by the king himself. Another Caller had been found; Neryn was not the only one. If true, these ill tidings set the rebels’ plan to challenge Keldec at next midsummer Gathering on its head. An expert Caller should be able to unite the fighting forces of humankind and Good Folk into one mighty army. He shuddered to think what might happen if two Callers opposed each other. He must take the news to Shadowfell as fast as he could. That, and his other burden.
He could not ride all night. He’d travelled far enough to be well away from Wedderburn land, and the horse was tiring. He stopped on the edge of a little wood, unsaddled her, set the bag she carried carefully down among the stones and shook out the feed he had brought for her. Tomorrow he’d need to do better. He did not make fire, simply rolled up in his blanket under the moon. He allowed himself to think of Neryn; imagined her lying in his arms with her hair like honey-coloured silk, whisper-soft against his skin. Felt something unaccustomed stealing over his heart, letting him dare to dream of new beginnings. Less than a day had passed since he’d chosen to walk away from his double life. Less than a day since he had found Regan’s head nailed up over the gates of Wedderburn fortress, and had known he could be a spy no more. And yet, even with the pitiful remnant of his friend in that bag over there, and the knowledge that the rebellion had lost the finest leader it could ever have had, he felt a kind of peace.
He slept; and woke to something prodding urgently at his arm. Long practice had him on his feet, weapon at the ready, in the space of two breaths.
‘Shield your iron, warrior!’ snapped the little woman in the green cloak. ‘Dinna raise your knife to me.’
It was Sage, Neryn’s one-time companion and helper on the road: a fey being not much higher than his knee, with pointed ears, a wild fuzz of grey-green curls and beady, penetrating eyes. Poking at him with her staff. Sage was one of the Good Folk, Alban’s uncanny inhabitants, whose help would be so vital to the rebellion. His heartbeat slowed. He slipped his knife back into its sheath, then squatted down to be closer to her level.
‘You could have got yourself killed,’ he said.
‘So could you. Listen now.’ Sage’s voice was hushed, as if they might be surrounded by listening ears out here in the midnight woods. ‘I heard you left Wedderburn in a hurry, on your own, without any of your Enforcer trappings. And before you ask, the news came to me from one of ours. A bird-friend spotted you. I cannot imagine that king of yours would be sending you out on a mission, on your own, at this time of the year. So you’re turning your back on the part you play at court. That’s not what Regan would be wanting, or indeed Neryn.’
He bit back a none of your business. Now that the Good Folk were part of the rebellion, it was Sage’s business. She was a friend; Neryn trusted her. ‘Regan’s dead,’ he said.
‘Aye,’ said Sage. ‘That sad news is known to me already. No need for you to bear it to Shadowfell; there’s quicker ways to pass on bad tidings than a man on a horse. They’ll know this by now, Neryn and the others.’
Neryn had spoken of messengers with wings; beings that were bird-like, but not birds. Bird-friends, she’d called them. ‘I’m carrying him home for burial,’ he told the wee woman, glancing over at the bag he’d stowed among the rocks. ‘I could not leave him there for the flies and the crows. I regret nothing; only that I did not know where the rest of him had been laid.’
‘He would not want this,’ Sage said.‘He would not want you to quit your post. How are the rebels to learn the king’s mind, with you gone from court? How can the challenge to Keldec succeed without the inside knowledge you provide? Unless I’m mistaken, and you are indeed on some kind of mission for the king here.’
‘I can’t,’ he found himself saying. There was something about Sage that made it impossible to lie. ‘I can’t do it anymore, I can’t be that man. Besides, there’s other news, something Neryn needs to know urgently. I must –’
A twig snapped somewhere in the woods behind him, and in an instant Sage was gone – not vanished, exactly, but somehow blended back into the light and shade of the forest fringe. With one hand on his knife hilt, he turned.
‘Owen! By all that’s holy, you led us a long chase.’
His belly tightened as two riders emerged from the shadows. A fair-haired man with broad, amiable features: his second-in-command, Rohan Death-Blade. A taller, darker man: another from Stag Troop, Tallis Pathfinder. His mind shrank from what this might mean. These were the two he had increasingly suspected might know something of what he truly was, though neither of them had ever spoken openly on that most perilous of topics. And now here they were, and his choice stood stark before him: fight them to the death, both together, or step back into the prison of his old life.
‘Rohan; Tallis. I did not expect to see you.’ Stall for time. Don’t draw attention to the bag, for if they find that, it’s all up.
‘I won’t ask what you’re doing,’ Rohan said, getting down from his horse. He was in his black Enforcer garb, as was Tallis, but neither wore the half-mask the king’s warriors used to conceal their identity. Two men, three horses; the one on the leading rein was Lightning. Was this official business, a party sent to convey him unceremoniously back to court to face the penalty for insubordination? Or was it something else? ‘I’ll only point out that our orders would have us halfway back to Summerfort by now. You seem to be headed in the wrong direction.’
Not official, then.
‘If we make an early start tomorrow we can still achieve it in time,’ put in Tallis, his tone neutral.
‘What about the others who came to Wedderburn with us?’ There was no sign of anyone else.
‘I sent them ahead by a different track,’ Rohan said. ‘Told them there was a covert mission involving just the three of us. Any reason we shouldn’t make a fire? We haven’t eaten since we left Wedderburn and it’s cold enough out here to turn a man’s bollocks to stone.’
‘No reason.’ He forced his breath to slow; made his tight body relax. Saw how it would be, the return to court, the sideways glances from his fellow Enforcers, the hard questions, the demonstrations of loyalty Keldec would require of him, as the king did every time a subject strayed from his orders in the smallest particular. He felt like a bird that had escaped its cage and had just begun the first cautious spreading of its wings, only to find itself thrust unceremoniously back in and the door slammed shut. ‘You took a risk, coming after me,’ he said.
Tallis was gathering wood. The moonlight gleamed on the silver stag brooch that fastened his cloak, emblem of a king’s man. Rohan began unsaddling his horse; Flint moved to tend to Lightning, whom he had left behind with some reluctance. When a man was travelling across country and wanting to stay unobtrusive, a jet-black, purebred horse was hardly an asset.
‘If we head straight back to Summerfort in the morning, not so much of a risk,’ Rohan said, glancing sideways as if to assess his commander’s state of mind. ‘That’s my considered opinion, anyway. You’re troop leader; the decision is yours.’
For one crazy moment he thought his second-in-command was suggesting all three of them defect to the rebels. Then common sense prevailed. There was no decision to be made. There was no real choice. He glanced over toward Tallis, who was not quite within earshot. ‘Sure?’ he murmured.
‘Nothing’s ever sure,’ said Rohan.
Such a statement, made at court or before the rest of Stag Troop, would be sufficient to earn a man accusations of treachery. An Enforcer’s code of existence required him to believe in the king with body, mind and spirit; to remain unswervingly loyal no matter what he was required to do. So one thing was forever sure: the king’s authority, which came above all. To question that was to invite a swift demise.
‘We head off in the morning, then,’ he said. Last night he had felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He had believed himself free at last; free from the vile duplicity of his existence as Regan’s spy at court. Some freedom that had been, short-lived as a march fly. Of course, an Enforcer should think nothing of inviting his two companions to sleep by the campfire, then knifing them in the dark and heading off on his own business. He had done worse in his time. But not now. Not after he had drawn those first tentative breaths as a different kind of man. ‘Did you bring any supplies?’
Rohan and Tallis shared their food with him. He kept watch while they slept; he wondered if he was being given a chance to get away, or whether it was a remarkable demonstration of trust. At one point in the night, he got up to check the bag he had brought from Wedderburn with its stinking, precious cargo, and found that it had vanished. For a heart-stopping moment he wondered if he had missed Rohan or Tallis opening it, finding him out, stowing it away to show the king. Then it came to him that Sage had taken it. That’s not what Regan would be wanting.
In that the fey woman was correct. For Regan, the cause had always come first; he had expected the same commitment from all the rebels. If Regan were still alive to be asked, of course he would want Flint to go back to court, to be an Enforcer, to do what had to be done in order to retain the king’s trust. It had taken years for him to work his way into his position as Stag Troop leader and Keldec’s close confidant. Despite his breaches of discipline in recent times, it seemed Keldec still viewed him as a trusted friend, or the king would never have told him about the second Caller.
He could almost hear Regan’s voice. For whatever reason, your comrades are getting you out of trouble here. You can still be at court within the six days Keldec gave you. You can accompany him to Winterfort and see this Caller for yourself. Assess the threat and get a message to Shadowfell. The cause comes before your personal inclinations, Flint. I shouldn’t need to tell you that.Later, Rohan woke and took the watch while Flint snatched fitful sleep, his dreams fragmented and full of violence. At dawn the three men packed up and rode away, heading back to Summerfort and the king. They spoke barely a word.
With winter closing its fist tight on the mountains, the ground was too hard for even the strongest man to get a spade in. So we laid Regan’s head to rest in stone, and sealed it there by magic.
The whole community of rebels was present, along with the clan of Good Folk who lived below us at Shadowfell in their own network of chambers and tunnels. The area called the Folds was deeply uncanny, a place that changed its form as it chose. So it was on the day we bid our beloved leader farewell.
Woodrush, the wise woman of the Northies, spoke a prayer and a charm, and a hollow opened up in the mountainside, just the right size for the head in its sealed oak-wood box to fit snugly within. Tali and her brother Fingal placed the box; Milla held the lantern. Dusk seemed the right time to lay our leader down to his well-earned rest.
Tali spoke words of farewell and blessing. Her speech was brief; she was struggling to hold herself together. The flickering lamplight gave the ravens tattooed around her neck a curious life, as if they were really flying their straight, true course. Then Woodrush moved her hands over the stone again, and the hollow closed over as if it had never been.
We shivered in our thick cloaks. Snow lay on the mountaintops and the wind whistled a song of winter. When we had made our goodbyes, we retreated indoors to the warmth of Shadowfell’s dining chamber. The whole place was below ground, apart from the practice area. That was where Andra drilled Shadowfell’s warriors while Tali, now leader of the rebel movement, prepared her strategy for the final challenge to King Keldec’s rule.
We had less than a year to achieve it. The support of the powerful northern chieftain, Lannan Long-Arm, was dependent on our mounting the challenge at the next midsummer Gathering. Before that time came, we had to create a fighting force made up of humankind and Good Folk, a force sufficiently strong and united to stand up against the power of the king and his Enforcers. It was a near-impossible task. The Good Folk did not trust humans. They did not even trust each other. Why would they set themselves at such risk when they could simply go to ground and wait for the bad times to pass?
The answer, remarkably enough, was me. It had taken me a long time to accept that I was indeed a Caller, a person with the unusual gift of being able to see, hear and summon the Good Folk no matter where they were; a person who could call forth uncanny beings and persuade them to work with humankind for the greater good. Call them to fight. I’d struggled with this. I still did. Summoning folk into possible harm, even death, felt deeply wrong to me. In Regan’s eyes, all that had mattered was the cause. If the rebellion were to succeed, he’d said, we must set aside such concerns. We must be prepared to do whatever was needed to ensure the tyrant’s downfall. It was a lesson every rebel at Shadowfell had taken to heart.
When I’d first made my way here, a scant year ago, my talent had been raw. I had been completely untrained, and the power of what I could do had frightened me, for I had seen what damage it could cause if not used wisely. So I had embarked upon a journey to find the four Guardians of Alban, the ancient, wise presences of the land, and to seek their aid in learning the proper use of my canny gift. Between spring and autumn I had made my way first to the Hag of the Isles, who had taught me how the call might be strengthened by the magic of water, and then to the Lord of the North, whom I had helped wake from a long enchanted sleep. In return, he had trained me in the magic of earth. Now I was back at Shadowfell, with the sorrow of Regan’s loss still fresh, and the news about Flint filling my dreams with troubling visions of the man I loved. When Daw, the bird-man of the Westies, had brought Regan’s head back home, he had told us a troubling tale.
Sage’s clan of Good Folk had seen a party of Enforcers ride into the stronghold of Wedderburn’s chieftain, Keenan, the man who had ordered Regan’s death. Later, they had seen Flint come out alone by night; they had watched him climb up above the fortress gates to cut down Regan’s head, which had been nailed there in a ghastly display of authority. They had watched as Flint, dressed not in his Enforcer uniform but in ordinary clothes and riding an ordinary horse, had slipped into the woods and travelled swiftly away. Not heading back to Summerfort and his duties at court, but up the Rush Valley toward Shadowfell. He’d had Regan’s head in a bag tied behind his saddle.
Sage had confronted him when he stopped to rest, and found her fears realised: he was giving up his hard-won position of trust at court, turning his back on the king and bringing Regan home. He’d barely begun to explain why when two Enforcers had appeared and Sage had been forced to go to ground. That was what Daw had told us; and that the next morning, Flint had headed off toward Summerfort with his comrades.
It was unsettling news. Flint had long been the rebels’ powerful secret weapon, Regan’s eyes at court, a source of vital inside information about Keldec’s strategic plans. He’d been there for several years, since he’d completed his training in the ancient craft of mind-mending and gone to offer his expert services to Keldec. He had risen high; to do so, he had been required to demonstrate flawless loyalty to the king. I knew how much it had cost him, for under Keldec’s rule a mind-mender must act as an Enthraller, using his craft to turn rebellious folk to the king’s will. When I’d seen Flint last spring in the isles, he’d been strung tight; he loathed what he was required to do. But I had not for a moment expected him to walk away before our battle was won.
After the burial, we sat awhile before our hearth fire, drinking mulled ale and enjoying the warmth. We tried to remember Regan the way we should, with tales of our lost leader’s courage and vision, and shared memories of the good times. But the shadow of Flint’s action hung over us all.
I knew how momentous the decision would have been for him – he would not have taken such a step unless he’d been close to breaking point. Selfishly, I wished he had indeed come on up the valley, leaving that old life behind, for here at Shadowfell he would have been safe, for now at least. I could have spent time with him. The others debated what it all meant and whether we could progress with our plans unchanged. Winter was closing in, and any movements out from the safe base here on the mountain would be limited. My own difficult decision was looming.
Tali was restless. Regan’s death had not only made her our leader – it had unleashed in her a furious drive to get things done, preferably as fast as possible. She let us have a night to rest and grieve. Then she called us to a council.
It was an inner circle that met: Tali, her brother Fingal, myself, Andra, Brasal, Gort and Big Don. That was the human contingent. But councils had changed at Shadowfell since we’d won the wary support of the Folk Below, the clan of fey beings who lived in the chambers underneath our stronghold in the mountain. So we were joined by their elders Woodrush and Hawkbit, and the warrior Bearberry, who looked something like a short-statured man and something like a badger. In addition there was Whisper, the owl-like being who had accompanied Tali and me when we returned in haste from the north. If not for Whisper’s magic, it would have taken us at least a turning of the moon to travel home; he had brought us back in a single night. Daw, the bird-friend and messenger from Sage’s clan, had already flown out from Shadowfell, back to the forests of the west.
With Good Folk in attendance at our council, all iron weaponry and implements within our dwelling were shielded and set away. I had hoped my training with the Guardians would teach me how to protect our fey allies from the destructive influence of cold iron, for this was likely to prove a great obstacle when we stood up together in battle, but neither the Hag of the Isles nor the Lord of the North had possessed the secret. Some of the Good Folk had a resistance to iron and some did not; that was all I had learned so far. I’d been told the secret might lie with the most unreliable of the Guardians, the Master of Shadows.
We gathered in a small chamber with the doors closed. Tali welcomed us, her manner brisk.
‘Thank you for being here. This has been a sad time for all of us, and I’m sorry there’s the need to talk strategy so soon. But Regan would have wanted us to get on with things, and that’s what I plan to do. As you know, Neryn and I witnessed the last midsummer Gathering. We saw Keldec’s rule in action, saw it in acts of twisted violence that should have sickened the most hardened person in all Alban. We saw a crowd of ordinary folk stand by and let it happen without a word of protest, because every one of them knew speaking out against the king’s authority is not only a death sentence for the person brave enough to do it, but can also bring down disaster on that person’s entire family. It was thanks to Flint that we got away from Summerfort; him and another of the Enforcers. We don’t know if that man is Flint’s ally, or whether he’s just somewhat less brutal than most of the king’s men. All in all, the Gathering was a vile experience.’ She glanced at me.
‘It was sickening,’ I said. The cruel events of the Gathering were burned on my memory; such monstrous acts must not be allowed to happen again. ‘If neither of us has talked much about it, it’s because we couldn’t bear to. You all know what Keldec’s capable of. This was a display of his authority at its very worst.’
‘And Flint, as you know, was the prize performance of the day, singled out for particular attention,’ said Tali. ‘But we don’t believe he’s been exposed as one of us. If that was his crime, he’d have faced a far worse punishment than being required to carry out a public enthralment. The fact that I was chosen as the victim must have been coincidence.’
‘If the king had known he was a rebel spy, he’d have made sure Flint didn’t survive that day. We saw two of the king’s men forced to fight to the death.’
‘I’m sure Flint didn’t know I’d been taken prisoner until they dragged me out for the enthralment,’ Tali said. ‘He was shocked. Though, as you’d expect, he concealed it well.’
‘It surprises me that you were taken prisoner at all,’ said Brasal. ‘I’d have thought you capable of tackling a whole troop of Enforcers.’
Tali grimaced. ‘I wouldn’t be such a fool as to attempt that unless the alternative was certain death.’
‘Tali let the Enforcers capture her because putting up a fight might have drawn their attention to my presence as her companion on the road,’ I said. ‘It’s fortunate that Flint was the one chosen to carry out her punishment, and that the two of them had the presence of mind to fake an enthralment.’ A shiver ran through me as I remembered it, the pretence that the enthralment had gone terribly wrong, with Tali so convincing that even I had believed her a damaged, witless remnant of her true self. Afterwards, the queen had demanded that she be disposed of, and Flint and his companion had taken us up into the woods, where they’d simply let us go.
‘We were lucky,’ Tali said soberly. ‘Unfortunately I was seen by the entire crowd that day. The king and queen and their court; every single troop of Enforcers; a large number of ordinary people who travelled to Summerfort for the so-called games. And because my appearance is a little out of the ordinary,’ she glanced down at the elaborate tattoos that circled her arms, spirals and swirls and flying birds to match the ones around her neck, ‘those people would all recognise me again. That means I won’t be able to leave Shadowfell until it’s time for the final confrontation.’ She looked over at Fingal. ‘The same goes for you.’ Her brother’s body markings were almost identical to hers.
‘What about Neryn?’ asked Andra. ‘She’ll have to travel.’
‘I was in the crowd,’ I said. ‘People did see me, but not with Tali apart from when they were dragging her out of the open area and I elbowed my way through to follow them. We did meet some folk when we were travelling toward Summerfort, of course. But I don’t stand out as Tali does. Besides, as you say, I have to go; I’m only halfway through my training. I still have the White Lady and the Master of Shadows to visit.’
‘This fellow with Flint, the other Enforcer,’ said Fingal. ‘He must have got a good look at you.’
‘He did.’ I remembered the open-faced, fair-haired warrior who had checked whether I had supplies for the way, and had asked not a single awkward question. I had seen him in dreams, too, for my dreams of Flint were especially vivid, thanks to his ability as a mind-mender. ‘I believe he’s a friend. If he wasn’t, he’d have expected to make an end of both Tali and me in the woods that day. I’m sure that’s what the king and queen intended to happen.’
‘Let’s hope you’re right, Neryn, because if you’re not, Flint’s in even more trouble than we thought,’ Tali said. ‘As it is, there’s the account Daw brought of his meeting with Sage. I’m still finding that hard to accept. When we met Flint in the isles, he gave us no reason to think he’d suddenly walk away from his position at court, especially at a time when his services are so vital to the cause.’
‘It costs him dearly to do what he does,’ I said. ‘Of us all, he has the hardest part to play.’
‘The story was that he rode back to court with the Enforcers who came to fetch him,’ Big Don said. ‘What we don’t know is whether he was in their custody, a prisoner, or whether he managed to give them some plausible excuse for heading off on his own like that. Flint’s pretty good at lying; he’s had a lot of practice over the years, and from what he’s told us in the past, the king’s often inclined to believe him where others wouldn’t. Maybe he can talk himself out of this.’
‘Either way, it’s disturbing.’ Tali’s jaw was set grimly. ‘If there’s any chance Flint’s lost the king’s trust, our source of information from court is gone. He won’t be sending word out and we won’t be sending messengers in. That will make it much harder to have everything in place for midsummer.’ She had many elements to coordinate: not only the fighting force of Shadowfell itself, but groups of rebels in various other locations, along with the personal armies of three of Alban’s chieftains. And that was only the human part of the rebellion. Provided I completed my training in time, I would be calling in a substantial number of Good Folk to fight alongside Tali’s human warriors.
‘We’d offer our own kind tae bear messages,’ Woodrush said, ‘if it werena for the cold iron in those places. Your man will be travellin’ tae Winterfort wi’ the king and his court for the cold season, aye?’
‘Correct,’ said Tali. ‘They’ll be there until early summer. A long way, even for bird-friends. Your folk have been an asset to the cause; we wouldn’t be where we are if you hadn’t spread the word across Alban for us. But as you say, both the king’s residences will be full of Enforcers armed with iron weaponry. If Flint’s in some kind of custody, we can’t help him. He’s on his own.’
‘I’m hoping that before midsummer I’ll learn how to protect your folk against cold iron,’ I said to Woodrush and her companions. ‘I’ve been told the Master of Shadows may know the secret. I’ll visit him after I’ve travelled east to find the White Lady.’
‘It doesna add up.’ Hawkbit had been unusually silent. Now the wee man fixed his eyes on me in grim question. ‘Ye were gone frae fi st shootin’ until last leaf-fall, seekin’ oot the Hag and the Lord and learnin’ what ye had tae learn. There’s twa more Guardians tae visit, and ye’ve only till midsummer tae get it done. And one o’ them’s the Master o’ Shadows. Ye canna –’
‘We don’t say cannothere at Shadowfell,’ Tali put in firmly, silencing him. ‘And we don’t say impossible. Neryn and I were caught up in the crowd heading for the Gathering; that slowed us. And before that, I made an error of judgement that took us out of our way.’
There was a silence, in which I suspected everyone was thinking the same thing: And that can happen again, or something very like it.
‘But yes,’ Tali added, ‘time is indeed short. Even if Neryn’s gone from here immediately the paths are open again after winter, she barely has time to do what must be done.’
Whisper ruffled his snowy feathers. ‘Winter is close,’ he said. ‘But no’ yet here in its full force. Why must you wait until next spring tae travel east? Go now, and you can be awa’ from the highlands before the snow lies ower the paths.’
‘Neryn might get through,’ said Brasal. ‘But at this time of year she’s just as likely to get caught in a blizzard and perish from cold on the mountainside. We’ve seen that happen; we don’t want it again.’
Whisper was still looking at me, waiting for me to speak. ‘But you could get me there much more quickly,’ I said, meeting his gaze. ‘Is that what you are suggesting? Overnight, as you did when you brought Tali and me home?’ The prospect of heading out from the warmth and safety of Shadowfell again so soon made me feel sick.
‘It would be possible.’ There was a but in Whisper’s tone. ‘I havena attempted a journey tae the Watch o’ the East before. It wouldna be easy. The White Lady is a private creature, and so are the folk o’ her watch. Or so I’ve heard. Taking you there so quickly would be a considerable test o’ strength.’
‘But you could do it,’ Tali said, her eyes bright with enthusiasm. There was no doubt this would offer us a great advantage. ‘How soon?’
‘As soon as Neryn can be ready,’ Whisper said, but there was a wariness in his voice. ‘I dinna promise I can find the White Lady, mind. But I can take Neryn tae the spot where I believe she is most likely tae be found, and I can stay wi’ her while she undertakes her training.’
‘You wouldn’t need to stay,’ said Tali, her mind clearly racing ahead. ‘You could return to the north until it was time for Neryn to move on again.’
Whisper turned his great owl-eyes on her. ‘You would leave your Caller wi’ nae guard?’
‘We’ll provide the guard. Gort has already volunteered to do that job; when they travel by human paths they’ll make a convincing husband and wife.’
‘Ah,’ said Whisper on a sigh. ‘This is a mair taxing journey, as I told you. I havena the strength tae take mair than one.’
There was a silence, and then Tali said, ‘Couldn’t you take Gort first, then come back for Neryn?’
‘It isna like carrying folk across a ford or balancing on a bridge,’ Whisper said. ‘It sucks awa’ strength. I can take only one. Neryn needs nae guard but me. I can keep her safe.’
Tali opened her mouth, plainly about to tell him that what he was suggesting ran contrary to the plan decided on when I’d first reached Shadowfell, a plan made by Regan and herself with the agreement of the entire rebel community. The entire humanrebel community, that was. It was only later that we had won the support of the Good Folk. There was a set of priorities, and one of the top priorities was my safety. Regan had not been prepared to let me leave the protection of Shadowfell without the best guard he could give me. On my previous journey, that guard had been Tali. Now Regan was dead and Tali could not come with me. But it was quite clear from the look on her face that she doubted Whisper’s ability to keep me safe.
‘Can you tell us where the place is?’ Big Don spoke before Tali could. ‘If we have allies in the area, one of your birdfriends could take a message to them, and they could provide additional protection for Neryn.’
‘I’m not having messages flying around that could reveal Neryn’s whereabouts,’ Tali said. ‘A bird-friend can fall into the wrong hands. Ideally Neryn would have two human protectors, one to stay with her, the other to prepare the way for when she needs to head on. We have allies in the south; they can be useful to her. The word’s gone out that we’ll be wearing the thistle as our token, discreetly of course.’
Whisper and the other Good Folk had gone rather quiet. ‘Don’t forget why I’m travelling to the east,’ I put in, concerned that we might be causing them offence. ‘The person I’m seeking out is a Guardian, ancient, powerful and fey. An entity who, if the rumours are correct, has retreated from the world to wait out the dark time of Keldec’s reign. The White Lady may not be prepared to speak to me if I’m surrounded by human protectors, however well-intentioned they are. She may even take exception to Whisper, since he’s a Northie. But at least he is one of her own kind.’
‘The lassie speaks wisely,’ said Woodrush. ‘The word is, the White Lady’s never been ower-fond o’ company, save that of her ain wee circle. I dinna think she’ll mak’ the task easy.’ After a pause she added, ‘Her place o’ refuge – I’ve heard tell it’s a spot forbidden tae men.’
‘Another thing,’ I said. ‘When I do find the White Lady, I’ll need to stay with her for training. That might take a while, and whoever comes with me may have to spend a lot of time just . . . waiting.’ I glanced at Tali. She had found waiting tedious in the isles, but she’d used her time fruitfully in the north. There, she had befriended the Lord of the North’s captains and helped them reorganise their fighting forces. Between us, she and I had won the support of that army for the rebellion. ‘Whisper could use the time to talk to the Good Folk of the east,’ I suggested. ‘He could start winning them over. We have support from west and north now, but the other Watches . . . It seems those folk are not so approachable.’
‘Easties, they’re odd folk,’ said Hawkbit, the wee man who was a leader of the Folk Below. ‘Flighty. Quick. Touchy. A body canna get a grip on them.’
‘Will-o’-the-wisps,’ put in Bearberry.
‘Hoppity-moons,’ said Woodrush. ‘A glint, a flash, a flutter and they’re gone.’
‘What about the south?’ asked Fingal. ‘Is that going to prove equally difficult? Even if Neryn does go now, there’s little time left.’
‘We canna tell ye aboot the Watch o’ the South,’ said Hawkbit. ‘Save that we wouldna be venturin’ there in a hurry.’ I glanced at Whisper. If he was taking me to the east, he’d likely be the one going on to the south too. There would be no coming home to Shadowfell in between, with the entire mission needing to be completed well before midsummer. The more I thought about it, the harder it was to believe I could do it in time.
‘If it werena for this matter o’ cold iron,’ Whisper said, ‘I’d be suggesting you dinna trouble yoursel’ wi’ the Master o’ Shadows. Dinna you think he’s as likely tae teach you the wrong thing as the right? For now, I’d say we gae ane step at a time. I can take you tae the east. You’ll save a season if you travel wi’ me.’
Tali folded her arms, her brows crooked in a frown. She looked at me. ‘You’re the Caller, Neryn. In the end, this has to be your decision.’
‘You’re the leader. I’ll abide by your decision, whichever way it goes.’
She managed a smile. ‘I’m not qualified to make the judgement. Whisper’s offer seems to make it possible for you to get everything done before midsummer, which is essential. But it is risky. If you have doubts, or if you’re simply not ready to head off again so soon, then wait and travel in spring, taking Gort as well as Whisper. It’s vital that you stay safe. We need you at the end; we can’t win this without you.’
Tali and I had not long ago returned from our travels to face the terrible news of Regan’s death. The thought of heading off again so soon was a leaden weight on my shoulders. The vile things I had seen on my journey still haunted my dreams. But there was no defeating evil unless people had hope. There was no going forward unless folk held on to their belief that the future could be bright, that a lamp of goodness could still shine in this realm of darkness and despair. And, although it would be far easier to curl up and hide, as many of the Good Folk had done, there would never be change unless people were prepared to take risks, to step forward and fight for a better world. I knew this well; I had known it a long time.
‘I’ll go with Whisper,’ I made myself say, and saw Tali’s glance of recognition, the acknowledgement that goes from one warrior to another: We’re in this together. ‘And we’ll do it the way he suggests. Our first mission is to find the White Lady. Until that is done, there’s not much point troubling ourselves with the Master of Shadows. Besides, when I met him before, I hadn’t sought him out. He came to me.’
‘Aye,’ said Hawkbit in dour tones, ‘so ye told us. If that didna mak’ ye suspicious, mebbe nothing will.’ After a moment he added, ‘But good luck to ye, lassie. May the wind blow ye fair and true on your path.’
Excerpted from The Caller by Juliet Marillier. Copyright © 2014 by Juliet Marillier.
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